A Christmas Tail
Baby animals are cute. Kittens lead on YouTube searches, loo rolls sell better if a puppy stars in the commercial, and who could possibly resist lambs, calves, foals and fawns? But to me the cutest of the lot are piglets; they are playful, inquisitive, friendly, intelligent, and they’ve got the looks. I say this as someone who is partial to a pork chop – but under one condition: the hog whose bacon I fry must have had a good life. The same goes for dairy cows, chicken and sheep – any animal that contributes to the food I cook and eat. How do you know an animal has or had a good life? For me one of the many reasons to go organic is the high animal welfare standards that come with certified organic production.
A tale of two barns
The first time I ever set foot inside a hog operation was in the early 1980s on a farm in northern Germany. Even then, that part of Lower Saxony was known for its big pork and chicken units – big in a European sense, but nowhere near what was and today is big in the US. This barn held no more than maybe 150 weaners, but I remember the noise, a cacophony of high pitched squeals, when we opened the door. And I remember seeing a number of pigs with bite marks on their sides and bleeding tails. ‘That’s just what they do’ I was told. Since then conventional farming has moved on: A lot of piglets have their tails cut off after birth, a procedure known as ‘tail docking’. No tail, no biting, no infection. Problem solved. Except that a pig’s tail signals its emotions like a weather vane shows the direction of the wind.
I remembered the visit to the farm in Lower Saxony when I was recently watching pigs in another barn, this time on an organic farm. It was early afternoon, warm and quiet. Most of the pigs were sleeping, nestled into the layers of deep straw that covered the floor of the pens. But one had come to where I was standing, head cocked, tail curled and upright, looking straight at me with a ‘hey you, what are you doing here?’ expression on its face.
Not a fairy tale
‘What a load of nonsense’ I can hear critics say, ‘the last thing we need is a middle class woman who buys organic anthropomorphising pigs. What we need is cheap food’. We do indeed, and here’s the thing: In the long run organic food is cheaper than conventionally produced food. Let’s take just one example: the use of antibiotics in farming. From the World Health Organisation to the UK’s chief medical officer, experts have been warning of a dramatic increase of bacterial strains resistant to antibiotics – 'super bugs' that are putting human lives at risk. Agriculture has a lot to do with this development. Here’s from a report by the ‘Alliance to Save our Antibiotics’* published last year:
‘In livestock production, especially pigs and poultry, many antibiotics are used routinely for disease prevention or for the treatment of avoidable outbreaks of disease. This is because in intensive production, typically thousands of the animals are kept together indoors, in confined spaces, on their own faeces, where disease outbreaks are inevitable.’
Which means: Pigs kept on straw with enough room, access to an outdoor run, allowed to play and live in family groups and fed an appropriate diet – in other words pigs which lead a decent life – are not stressed, don’t often fall ill and hardly ever need antibiotics.
Tell tail signs
‘Organic standards put animal welfare first’ the Soil Association website tells you, and on the long lists of does and don’ts you find that tail docking in pigs is not allowed. Since January conventionally raised pigs in north Germany also have a good chance of keeping their tails – thanks to the premium their owners can get if they don’t dock them. The premium of Euro 16.50 per tail (that’s about £11.60) is the idea of Lower Saxony’s agricultural minister (and member of the Green Party), Christian Meyer. And because of the extra money, this year alone 115,000 pigs have kept their tails. Farmers were able to enhance the animals’ living conditions and stay profitable. The most important change they made was to give each pig a little more space. That measure alone reduces stress levels, and calm pigs are less likely to bite others or go for their tails. That’s still a long way from organic practices, but it certainly is an important step in the right direction.
So why not celebrate the festive season with meat from animals that have had a good life, or milk, cheese and eggs from cows and hens that are still enjoying one? And for the New Year? Go the whole hog and continue to buy organic.
Shop the organic Christmas Collective, your Organic one stop shop.
*The Soil Association is one of the founders of the Alliance to Save Our Antibiotics